Stop misleading customers and damaging the reputation of German wine - an open letter to Waitrose

Stop misleading customers and damaging the reputation of German wine - an open letter to Waitrose

Dear Waitrose,

You are not like every other supermarket. You were the first to sell organic food in the UK. You have a royal warrant to supply the Queen. You are owned by your employees. And through your wine business you have won much respect, including mine.

That is until you sold me a bottle of "Piesporter Michelsberg" under the label of "Legends of Germany" as "one of the most renowned wines of Germany". Admittedly, this has not the same shocking ring to it as labelling horsemeat as beef, nor is it a health risk or illegal. And yet you are misleading your customers, thereby damaging the image of a product you and others have worked hard to restore to former glory: German wine.

You don't know what I am talking about? Somehow I find this hard to believe. After all you are not just any supermarket. In 2012, your website reminds us, you were named Retailer of the Year and European Retail Wine Buyer of the Year at the annual International Wine and Spirit Competition. You have won the title of Decanter Supermarket of the Year five times since 2006. You also proudly say you "have more Masters of Wine than any other supermarket". Surely that means you understand the basics of German wine at least as well as this humble Wine Rambler and you would not sell a wine after "a rigorous quality control and tasting process" without knowing what it stands for. But maybe you forgot. Or it was the intern who ordered the wine. So let me remind you.

Depending on whom you ask Germany either has a reputation for world class wines or sweet plonk. Sadly, both is true. Artisan winemakers, often working on historic vineyards, make outstanding wine, while others mass-produce utterly unexciting wine that is exported in bulk. Customers are free to decide which of these to buy, but a retailer should not knowingly sell one for the other - and here we come to the "Legends".

Piesport (original by <a href=Chris, CC BY 2.0)" src="/sites/default/files/images/20130310_30.jpg" width="500" height="326" align="center" class="inline inline-center" />

Amongst the truly legendary vineyards in Germany is the "Goldtröpfchen" (gold droplet) in the Mosel village of Piesport. Winemaking there goes back to the Romans, and wine lovers across the world delight in Riesling from the "Piesporter Goldtröpfchen". And yet "Piesporter" has a bad reputation in the UK - because of the German wine law, and because of you. The law allows profiteering people to sell wines as "Piesporter Michelsberg" even if the grapes don't come from Piesport. While it sounds like a single vineyard Michelsberg is a "Großlage", a term that refers to a large area comprised of dozens of vineyards in the region, with the wines often being blends with the Müller-Thurgau grape. So if you want a Riesling from one of the famous Piesporter vineyards buying a bottle of "Piesporter Michelsberg" is a good way to ensure not to get it.

The Germans are to be blamed for this you say? Damn right they are. But you contribute by selling these wines. Even worse, you have chosen one that under the label "Legends of Germany" claims to be one of the world class Mosel wines. The back label says:

Piesporter Michelsberg is one of the most renowned wines of Germany

Renowned? Infamous rather! Maybe your intern, like me, is not a native speaker and confused "famous/renowned" and "infamous"? However, they do seem to understand the difference well enough as on your website you advertise "Legends" as follows: "Piesport is a picturesque village in the central Mosel valley, famous for its light and refreshing wines." You can sell as much mediocre semi-sweet wine as you like, but why mislead your customers to believe they drink a legendary German wine?

Wine legends are born from quality, joy and excitement. And to prove it I reluctantly took a bottle of "Legends" home with me and put it against a wine from a famous Piesport vineyard - in a blind tasting, to avoid any bias.

would be legends / real legends
would be legends / real legends

The wine in the first glass has a very pale straw colour and a bouquet that is almost as faint. Yes, there is some fruit - citrus, pear, apple and a little stone fruit, but it is hardly much. Even a little floral soapiness and a hint of furniture polish are not enough to leave an impression. The wine is equally light on the tongue: some fruit, especially apple, with lemon and a hint of something bitter make a wine that when you don't pay much attention is vaguely refreshing and easy to drink, but that as soon as you do feels watery and falls flat towards the end.

The second wine also is of straw colour but with a touch of gold. Its nose is richer with much more depth and expression: glorious peach, lovely herbs (think herbal candy), an echo of chilli and vegetable plus some caramelised fruit (think molten fruit gold). It also has a very different mouth-feel with more substance, good texture and a long finish. Almost buttery apple blends with rich, caramelised peach and a great freshness that ends in a zingy after-taste with a touch of mineral.

It was not hard to tell these two wines apart instantly, but just in case you still have hopes: the second wine was not your "Legends" but a Kabinett from Piesport. Despite not even being a high grade wine from the Goldtröpfchen vineyard it plays in a completely different league to "Legends". Considering the price difference the outcome should not have been a surprise, but that is not the point. The issue is that you are misleading your customers, that you contribute to the confusion about German wine and that you damage the efforts of German winemakers by putting "Legends" on your shelves and selling it as "one of the most renowned wines of Germany".

I would have expected better from you, Waitrose. And from your intern.

The Wine Rambler

Update, June 2013

Last month I met a representative from Waitrose to discuss this - read their response and my comments on it.

Submitted by Nikolaus Tuesday, 12/03/2013

I am not living in the UK and I am not a customer of Waitrose.

The law allows profiteering people to sell wines as "Piesporter Michelsberg" even if the grapes don't come from Piesport.

I do not expect every customer to know and understand those weired rules which also allow tomato products from China be labeled as "made in Italy" {Pulp fiction :-)}.

But I do expect experts to have a better grip on the reality of their stocks. I also grow high expectations in connection with words like "LEGENDS" -- so I fully support the approach of the Wine Rambler here.

Please return to your high standards. Knowing the people behind Wine Rambler are full of real passion for wine I am sure this is a valid point of view from them. Waitrose should check this and act on the results.


Submitted by Paul hillsmith Tuesday, 12/03/2013

Cannot believe what Waitrose have done, after all this supermarket more than any other have done more to satisfy us Riesling freaks to bring quality wine from top winemakers such as Loosen, Leitz and Burklin-Wolf, however you guys have to understand that there is still a very healthy and thriving market for these candy sweet wines, with much of the problem down to the ridiculous German wine laws set in 1971, and now with the recent updates spearheaded by the VDP you've gone and made it even more complex and complicated! You cannot deny, and I've said this in a previous post, that you're average £5.99-buying Brit perusing the aisles of MATEUS Rose, Blue Nun Merlot and Black Tower whatever has a goddam frigging clue what's inside a bottle of "Berg Kaisersteinfels Riesling Alte Reben/Terrassen, and you're too proud to do what Erni Loosen has done recently and add a very discreet "DRY" sticker on his wines to help Mr. Blue Nun buyer. In addition prices of pradikat Riesling have risen sharply over the past couple of years making it even more difficult in the current Aldi/Lidl dominated climate, so of course the consumer will stick with what they know and never venture outside of their comfort zone.

Over to you guys, and let me get back to my Dr.L at 32 Euros a bottle here in Riesling-free Mumbai.

Submitted by Steve Race Wednesday, 13/03/2013

I am in full support of the Winerambler here, as there are far too many misleading labels in the world of food and drink...

Submitted by torsten Wednesday, 13/03/2013

Thank you all for your comments. Waitrose have responded earlier today on Twitter and said they are looking into the matter. Speaking of Twitter (and also Facebook) I would like to thank everyone who has picked this up, retweeted and commented - as a result this piece has already become our most-read post of 2013, so wine lovers do seem to share our concern.

Paul, I agree that German wine is not one of the best-labelled products on the market, and that there is demand in the UK for cheaper wines. "Legends", while not the cheapest (nor the worst) of the "Piesporters", is even cheaper than the price you mention. To me that makes it all more important to be clear about what is in the bottle, after all a customer who believes that this is one of the most renowned wines of Germany may never step up to try the more exciting German wines Waitrose also sell.

Submitted by @Winerackd Thursday, 14/03/2013

The wine is £4.79. Anyone buying wine at £4.79 should not and does not expect something legendary. In fact with the duty and vat where it is, I think anyone paying £4.79 is lucky it's not an empty bottle. If you spend that money you are not about investigating brand Germany. You are about hoping the wine doesn't make you grimace. In fact if Waitrose can deliver something palatable at £4.79, good on them, they have the finest selection of German wine on the high street at any price.

Submitted by torsten Thursday, 14/03/2013

In reply to by @Winerackd

For me this has nothing to do with price, it is about honesty in marketing and communication. Piesporter Michelsberg simply is not "one of the most renowned wines of Germany" - if anything it is about the most infamous wines of Germany. Elevating it to legendary status is also wrong. You can get away with associating it with Piesport if you can demonstrate that the grapes it is made from came from Piesport, but if all the grapes do then I don't see why you would brand it as Michelsberg anyway.

The argument about value is a different one and where Michelsberg sits depends on your palate. I poured it down the drain but then I am the person who would rather drink less wine and spend twice as much per bottle. Others might not care enough or simply feel they cannot afford to spend more than a fiver. It is certainly true that the UK tax and duty regime makes it much harder to sell decent wine at low prices (for non-UK readers: in a wine like the Legends you are paying around £3 for tax and duty; then add retailer margin, shipping, marketing etc. and you realise how little actually went into the wine). Two years ago I did another blind tasting to compare a Piesporter, Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun - and at the time concluded I liked the cheapest wine best (Liebfraumilch for £3.06) simply because it was least annoying.

That all does not change my issue with a respected supermarket with, as you rightly say, an otherwise good range of German wine selling a product that claims to be something it is not.

Submitted by Alexander Eichener Monday, 01/07/2013

I have sent them an email. In appropriate directness. :-)

It will of course be labelled "the first negative feedback" that they ever received - among hundreds of similar ones, bien entendu.